SCMP Saturday, January 13, 2001
Difficulties of distance learners
An Australian university academic whose research has found high failure rates among distance learning students believes potential students should be warned that the method does not suit everyone.
But Monash University researcher Ian Dobson also said students had an obligation to think for themselves about whether they were best suited to such an independent style of learning.
"Potential students should be told that distance education is not the way to go for everybody," he told Education Post. "But there has got to be a little bit of 'buyer beware': people have got to work it through themselves."
Mr Dobson called for universities and governments to look for ways to reduce "wastage" caused by the failure of distance students, saying it was important to identify those "at risk" if they took distance education.
He advocated using the Internet to enable distance education more closely to mirror learning opportunities on-campus and to offer students more support.
Mr Dobson's study of subject results for distance education students enrolled in bachelor-level courses at Australian universities in 1998 found failure rates significantly higher than those for students studying on campus.
He found distance education students failed 18.7 per cent of subjects, compared with 11.6 per cent for on-campus.
This applied to both overseas distance students and those living in Australia. While just 12.7 per cent of all overseas students failed, 17.3 per cent of overseas distance education students failed. The study has important implications for Australian universities' recruitment in source countries like Hong Kong.
Distance education has been a huge growth area and in the 10 years between 1989 and 1999 distance education enrolments as a proportion of total student numbers rose from 11 per cent to 13.7 per cent. In that time the increase in distance education represented 18.6 per cent of all enrolment growth. By 1999 there were about 83,000 international students at Australian universities, 9,253 of whom were studying by distance education. In the preceding decade the number of international students studying by distance education in Australia grew by 795 per cent.
Mr Dobson and co-researcher Raj Sharma of the Swinburne University of Technology found that failure rates were higher in all fields of study for distance education and that men and younger students had the highest failure rates. Although female distance students performed better than their male counterparts, they still did not do as well as women on campus.
Distance students tended to be older than their on-campus counterparts, with a higher proportion in the 25 to 49 age bracket - perhaps because younger students were not used to independent learning and wanted to be on campus for social reasons, so were less likely to opt for distance education, Mr Dobson said.
Among those young students who did opt for the distance method, he found high failures rates: 27.8 per cent for those younger than 20, compared with 12.2 per cent for all students in that age group, and 25.5 per cent for those aged 20 to 24, compared with 12.1 per cent for all students.
Failure rates decreased with age to a far greater extent than happened with bachelor students overall.
In a paper on his findings, Mr Dobson wrote: "Off-campus study, it would appear, is not for the young. Considering this age-linked factor, it would be preferable for younger undergraduates to have exposure to an on-campus learning environment, perhaps with an element of distance education later in their course."
His results showed some students were "at risk" if they opted for distance education: "Distance education is clearly inappropriate for some students and such students should, if possible, be identified before they commence their studies," he wrote.
Mr Dobson said further research could look more deeply at issues such as whether most of the younger students were males, whether they lived in cities or rural areas. Also, universities may be able to use the general attributes of success identified by his findings to design distance education programmes more similar to those on-campus.
He told Education Post that use of the internet to provide faster turnaround times and high levels of student support was one solution. There was no longer any need for delays caused by posted materials and marked work and there was scope for far greater interaction with staff and fellow students - through electronic bulletin boards, for instance.
"Students in a place like Hong Kong, where there is a three-hour time difference [from Australia in summer] can virtually be asking their questions in real time."
Mr Dobson said work was also needed on the most successful means of using the internet: "It is not good enough just to put lecture notes on the Web," he said.
His concerns were mirrored by those of US educator Russell Poulin, of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, who is also a distance education consultant.
Last week Mr Poulin told the Chronicle of Higher Education that distance education has so far had a mixed track record, with institutions which had clear goals and built programmes to meet them enjoying the most success. "But you'll find as many states or institutions where the goal is to get into distance education, or the goal isn't quite as clear. And then they wonder why they haven't met their goals when they didn't have any in the first place."
Operators had to be able to prove they could achieve the sort of outcomes they could achieve on campus. "That's something that is sort of difficult to do at times," he said.